What a sauce!

It isn’t exactly breaking news but I just found out that Heinz, who now own the company which makes HP Sauce, has moved production of the world’s greatest condiment to Holland after over 100 years in Birmingham. That’s another British icon gone.

This just the sort of thing that makes ageing ex-pats like me get all Blimpish and fogey about the horrible modern world. It probably won’t taste any different (Heinz had better not mess with that) but my tongue won’t feel quite the same nostalgic and patriotic tang when I bite into a sausage sandwich garnished with it’s spicy brown goodness ever again.


(Image above from the wonderful Brown Sauce site.)


In a flowerpot, on the whatnot

“The lower middle class people in there, behind their lace curtains, with their children and their scraps of furniture and their aspidistras – they lived by the money code, sure enough, and yet they contrived to keep their decency. The money code as they interpreted it was not merely cynical and hoggish. They had kept their standards, their inviolable points of honour. They ‘kept themselves respectable’ – kept the aspidistra flying. Besides, they were alive. They were bound up in the bundle of life. They begot children, which is what the saints and the soul-savers never by any chance do.
The aspidistra is the tree of life, he thought suddenly.”
George Orwell
Keep The Aspidistra Flying (1936)

The Aspidistra plant was a ubiquitous prescence in English homes from the Victorian era through to WWII, it’s popularity mostly due to it being impossible to kill no matter how much you neglected it and able to practically grow in the dark which made it perfect for drab and pokey English sitting rooms. In Orwell’s novel it symbolizes dull bourgeois taste and the “parlour palm” was so pervasive it became an emblem of aspiring middle class respectability, bringing a touch of colour to otherwise humdrum lives. Like the flamboyant spider plant in the bohemian 70s and the angular Yucca in the designer 80s, the Aspidistra meant something more than mere home decoration – it’s the plant for people who “know their place.”

Cementing it’s position as a national icon, the plant was also the subject of the very popular 1920s song “The Biggest Aspidistra In The World” by Lancashire lass Gracie Fields. Gracie was born over a chip shop in Rochdale which sounds like the sort of thing Monty Python would make up for some comically working class character (but it’s true) and went on to become the most famous and highest-paid entertainer in England, if they’d had pop charts back then I would have called this a monster hit. This is a very funny song about the jolly japes that result from the plant being crossed with an oak tree – so it’s also a warning of the dangers of genetic engineering. Though the references to Hitler and Goering must mean this isn’t the original version, but you can’t beat a song that takes the piss out of Adolf too.

Download: The Biggest Aspidistra In The World – Gracie Fields (mp3)
Buy “Northern Sweetheart” (album)
Photo from “We Are The People” (book)

Grim all over

Just how bleak were the 1970s in England? Well, we had a miner’s strike that brought down the government, power cuts that plunged homes into cold darkness, a 3-day work week, bombs going off in pubs, the Winter of Discontent, the National Front, a bankrupt treasury, and “Love Thy Neighbour” on television. No wonder brown was the dominant color for home decoration back then, very appropriate for a country totally in the shit.

Things were so grim that even our shiny pop stars were making depressing movies. First there was pretty boy David Essex dying of a drug OD at the end of “Stardust” and then Slade came up with “Slade In Flame” in 1975. Given their image as fun-lovin’ glam bovver boys who wrote simple, dyslexic songs, you’d expect a colourful “Help!”-style romp but what you got was a gritty, cynical kitchen-sink drama about the rise and bitter break up of a Northern rock band. Though it had it’s funny moments it was generally as dour as an old Yorkshireman at closing time. If Ken Loach made a rock and roll movie it would have been like this. I only saw it once and remember liking it but my best friend at school was a Slade fanatic and claimed to have seen it 13 times.

The movie’s theme “How Does It Feel?” was another bitter pill and is probably the only time you could ever use the word “plaintive” about a Slade record. I think this is one of the best singles of the 70s, a reflective, melancholy ballad built around some very non-Slade things like piano and flute and a massive wall of brass. There’s something about that brass sound that reeks of leather coats and dirty pavements, I can’t really explain why. Much as I love their mindless headbanging numbers this gem shows that Noddy Holder and Jimmy Lea could write proper songs – with proper spelling too!

The British public didn’t warm to Slade as serious artistes, the movie wasn’t a big smash and “How Does It Feel?” was their first single in three and half years that failed to make the Top 10, so they reverted back to being cartoon characters and stayed that way ever since. Shame. a few more songs like this and their reputation could have been very different.

Download: How Does It Feel? – Slade (mp3)
Buy: “Get Yer Boots On: The Best of Slade” (album)

What’s all this then?

“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”
L.P. Hartley
The Go-Between (1953)

There used to be this tiny little old sweet shop near where I lived in London that was like some relic from a previous era. It was a dark and dingy place that rarely had any customers, run by an old lady who lived in the back of the shop. Behind the counter on it’s old wooden shelves stood a few big plastic jars of Cough Candy, Bonbons, Kola Kubes, Acid Drops and Lemon Sherbets which were sold loosely in plain paper bags, a quarter pound at a time. When I was a kid all the sweet shops in England sold candy like that but the reason I always remember this shop is it carried on doing it this way well into the 1980s when that old, slow, and terribly English way of doing things was being swept away by the radical new broom that was Maggie Thatcher. As the area around it gradually became more gentrified and swanky with the other shops replaced by tapas bars and estate agents there it stood, looking increasingly lonely and forlorn with its peeling paint and dirty windows, a shabby museum of an England that was fading into history. Those few jars of sweets seemed to be the only stock the shop had left as if the old lady was hanging on until the last Cough Candy was sold. It eventually died sometime in the late 80s and I think there’s a hair salon on the spot today. I know it would make this story better if it had been replaced by a McDonald’s or Starbucks but life isn’t always as neatly symbolic as that.

So what does all this have to do with the price of fish? Well, this blog is sort of like that sweet shop: a time capsule of the past, a melancholy little place stocked with tatty old crap and a musty air of wistful nostalgia for a vanished time and place. This will be a lot more personal and idiosyncratic than The Number One Songs In Heaven (it’s a local shop for local people) and some of you might be a bit shocked how rubbish my taste in music was and still is at times.

I assume most of you know the title of this blog comes from Jilted John’s eponymous 1978 single. Its classic line “I was so upset I cried all the way to the chip shop” is one of the quintessentially English pop lyrics, a mopey melodrama sung in a runny-nosed voice as wet as a Bank Holiday in Margate. It’s silly and pathetic but also quite poignant, turning mundane miserablism into something romantically tragic as much as weeping over a dying old sweet shop does. A friend of mine thinks that one line was the inspiration for Morrissey’s entire oeuvre.

Download: Jilted John – Jilted John (mp3)
From: True Love Confessions (album)